Many, many moons ago, my husband gave me a paper flower. Not one of those fancy tissue-paper flowers that you’ve fluffed up around a pipe cleaner “stem.” This was a flat cut-out of a rose that he had drawn on sketch paper with a pencil. A lovely, simple, humble drawing. Cream and gray. Smudged with fingerprints. We had only recently gotten together, and he was a young aspiring artist, much cooler than I, and entirely skeptical of Hallmark holidays. So he showed up at my door on Valentine’s Day with this lovely understated drawing of a rose. He was with the right girl for this sort of gesture. I loved it and hung on to that piece of paper for years, until it was soft and creased and covered in splotches of kitchen grease that had splattered it as it hung on my refrigerator door.
What is it about flowers? Why are they a romantic gesture anyway? Of course they are beautiful and fragrant. They are valuable, I suppose, in that they are not a renewable resource. You cut them, and they rather quickly fade away. I guess there’s also the symbolism of vitality and fecundity. The promise of new life and the bearing of fruit. Then there are the sexual connotations as famously made explicit in Georgia O’Keeffe‘s flower paintings that celebrate the soft, gentle folds of a vulva. With this association in mind, I guess that flowers could be understood as a bold, wink-wink-nudge-nudge sexual innuendo. But no, that’s not it.
Whatever the reasoning, they are—to use a technical term—lovely. Which is probably why we decorate our walls and furniture and clothes and virtually everything else with them. They are vibrant, but only for a time. For me that’s their real value: their transience. That transience is one of the reasons I have come to appreciate paintings of flowers so much in recent years. Take the paintings of the queen of Dutch flower paintings, Rachel Ruysch, for example. Bold, velvety flowers in all their perfectly ripe glory peek out from thick green foliage. Delicate tendrils of green spiral out from the dense vegetation. You can almost smell the rich perfume of the flowers and feel the coolness of the greenery. Everything is at the peak of ripeness, or perhaps just a little past peak. How delightful that art captures this. That Ruysch, long dead herself, paints not just flowers—no, that’s not what her paintings are at all—but life itself. The vibrant, celebratory, exuberance that we might call the life force. How shockingly, spectacularly beautiful.
Flowers are such a potent symbol then, aren’t they? Paper, real, or painted, I’ll take them any way they come. And, yes, it really is the most romantic gift. “Here is some loveliness just for you. You can’t keep it; these aren’t yours forever. But aren’t they nice for now? Isn’t it all so beautiful while it lasts?”